Skip to content
SOFT POLYTHEISM vs. HARD POLYTHEISM
I was leading a discussion at a local metaphysical shop the other day when I was asked a question concerning whether or not I thought “Soft Polytheism” was dangerous because it could be used as a tool of empire building, with the ancient Romans being perpetrators of this.
In this context, Soft Polytheism denotes the tendency of many Pagans (both ancient and modern) to view deities and spirits as anthropomorphized aspects of the natural world. Thus, since each deity represents merely a face or portion of a much more complex whole, deities from different cultures can be revered and/or worshipped in conjunction without incident.
This is in opposition to “Hard Polytheism,” which tends to view deities/spirits as precisely what certain old tomes claim them to be — mystical humanoids of great power who walk the realms and do magical things beyond our ken, manipulating the world like cosmic chess players.
(Side note — There are plenty of reasons why the so-called “Magical Sky Fairy” paradigm is problematic, but that’s an entirely different essay).
The reason this matters here is because most ‘hard polytheists’ I’ve encountered seem to do everything they can to keep the boundaries of said powerful deities to a single culture and/or historical time period. If they do use multiple cultural elements in their practice, they do their best to keep them as separate as possible.
I mean, I can understand why. It’s very difficult to say one’s deity is precisely what they claim to be and more when there’s an older deity from a nearby culture a few miles away, rocking most of the same iconography, symbolism, and in some cases, words of power.
The discussion which brought this about had concerned the historical evolution of Horned God archetypes, and I had explained how the events of the Pax Romana and the later Roman Empire changed Paganism in many ways through the intermingling of various mystical and theological practices, culminating in a slew of multi-cultural mystery cults and alliances of esoteric thought.
The querent seemed interested in the idea of Hard Polytheism being more serious, ultimately more “true” to the nature of the ancient Pagans, hinting that borrowing “bits and pieces” of other traditions as many are known to do today is not only a case of cultural appropriation, but ultimately disrespectful to the cultures in question. Their words were in many ways inspirational, and a great case was made.
It was still troublesome for the following reason:
HARD POLYTHEISM OF THIS NATURE IS ALMOST ENTIRELY FICTIONAL, AND IN THE LONG RUN, RACIST.
Now, the querent appeared as far from racist as one can get, mind you. Their genuine worry seemed to be the erosion and loss of proud and beautiful traditions through ostensibly a “Cliff’s Notes” interpretation of their mythologies, indicative of many modern “gimme now” trends, as well as the destructive nature of colonialism in general. Certainly valid fears.
However, I shall attempt in the following essay to demonstrate how this conception of Hard Polytheism is inevitably intertwined with another faulty human construct — race, and both continually loom over the spiritual traditions like Mussolini’s fat-headed ghost.
Race is a myth, people. Racism, unfortunately, is not.
ROME FOR THE ROMANS
When I began my studies in history, I had been obsessed with the Romans since my grandparents hailed from Italy. So, we’ll be concentrating on them for a bit (the Romans, not my grandparents… yet).
When interacting with different cultures (such as the Germanic or Gaulish tribes they were commonly at war with, as well as the ones they established treaties with or hired as mercenaries), instead of claiming their primary deities were “Wotan” or “Cernunnos,” folks like Caesar would write in their notebooks Roman names like “Mercurius” or “Dis.” This was not an instance of cultural appropriation, most notably because most Romans of Caesar’s time preferred the Roman style of worship anyway. However, a very common theme among ancient Pagans was that the “Gods” were all ostensibly the same crazy forces controlling nature and human interactions, merely called different names by different people. This is how, later in the Empire, rulers like Aurelian and Constantine could get their citizens to revere the “Sun God” on specific days — Sol, Mithras, Horus, Ra, Shamash, Phoebus, Elagabalus, Apollo — the name didn’t matter so long as they embodied a similar series of mystical traits (such as light, heat, and resurrection). All the mythologies of the deities mentioned above share a great many similarities, but also a great number of differences.
If we go back a few centuries earlier to the Greeks, something analogous was already in vogue. Names of a certain god in one region might become an epithet or appellation in a neighboring region, one of the many reasons why each deity in the pantheon ended up with so many names by the time of the Homeric Hymns. The name Aphrodite hails from one region, Cytherea another, both monikers for ostensibly the same love Goddess, though one might have arisen from Ouranos’ testicles being tossed into the sea, another deemed the child of Zeus and Dione. In the Middle East around the same time, the love goddess Astarte was called Ashtoreth by some and Ishtar by others. Why is this?
ANCIENT PEOPLE WERE MUTTS, THEIR MYTHOLOGIES A FAÇADE OF CULTURAL UNITY
Back in ancient times, there were no “nations” as we know them. There were collective ruling classes that eventually gave “citizenship” of a sort (we’ll leave that purposefully vague) to their “colonized” neighbors. Those rulers each had a loyal priesthood who would augment the mythologies of the region.
For example, I have met many people who strive for a pure polytheism, be it Greek, Viking, Egyptian, Celtic, Roman, etc., but if each were a single culture with a single set of Gods, why the hell were they so bloody varied in their religious practices and mythologies? Let’s go back to the Romans.
To begin with, the Romans were invaders. They did not come from Italy, or anywhere near it — and this is according to their own version of history. The Romans themselves claimed to hail from the city of Troy, located in “Anatolia” or modern-day Turkey, and those who would eventually be called “Romans” were little more than the progeny of refugee warriors and their few family members able to flee the carnage before “Greeks” turned the whole place upside-down.
I use the term “Greeks” very loosely as well, since once again, there was no concept of a unified “Greece,” but instead a malleable confederation of warriors from various Greek-speaking areas (each with a regional language or dialect), referred to alternately as “Achaeans,” “Argives,” and “Danaans” in Homer’s account. Even centuries later, when Alexander started killing off the proverbial competition and spreading “Greek Culture” throughout Afro-Eurasia and all the way to India, he was still viewed as a “barbarian” by Attic, Peloponnesian, and Island Greeks because he came from Macedonia and not from say, Athens or Corinth.
So what about these Trojans the Romans came from? Who were they? Well, there were dozens upon dozens of native tribes in the Anatolian region that had lived there for centuries. Some had been subjugated, while others like the Trojans included themselves in (read as: paid fealty to and were intermarried with) the Hittite Empire. Those who find the name Hittite familiar probably read about them in their Egyptology textbook in relation to Ramses II, who had a few run-ins with them (i.e. Engaged in a series of war campaigns and bloody battles along a Levantine front, with both sides eventually going home and claiming total victory over the other).
SIDE NOTE: ROMANS, HITTITES, and RAMSES II — ALL KNOWN FOR BIG, AQUILINE NOSES.
The Egyptians have been called xenophobic and naturally distrustful of strangers by some historians (particularly after the Hyksos invasion), but the Egyptian dynasties are another testament to the fiction of religious unity and bloodline purity. Each dynasty (save those established by the Hyksos) came from a different region somewhere along the Nile’s 4000+ mile stretch and elevated their local deities to Ultimate Godheads. Those from Elephantine worshipped differently than those from Heliopolis, and their rather varied series of mythologies (each with its own particular creation mythos and pantheon array) shifted and changed as quickly as one family line died out (or was murdered) and another took its place. The new regime would install its loyal priesthood and thus change the mythologies accordingly through new monuments, inscriptions and royal edicts.
Even if we go to the “beginning” of what we call Dynastic Egypt, we find the Narmer Pallette — an artistic representation of a powerful warrior-king uniting (or subjugating) two separate “kingdoms,” themselves conglomerations of loosely-united Northern and Southern city-states scattered along a giant river, with many of the Southern states drawing from myths and practices of nearby Nubia and Kush, and the Northerners in constant contact with Levantine and Mediterranean cultures.
But I digress.
THE TARPEIAN ROCK LANDED ON US
So who was in Italy when the Romans finally arrived? Well apart from the Etruscans, who were the largest and arguably the most politically powerful group of peoples before the Romans dethroned them, there were also dozens of different Italic tribes such as the Sabines, Samnites and Umbrians, many of whom were differentiated by language and geography (Italy is chock-full of rather mountainous country). Speaking of mountains, a handful of different Celtic tribes lived throughout the Alpine regions of what is now Northern Italy, their warriors notorious for raping and pillaging their Southerly neighbors once the snows melted in springtime.
So, in addition to the Etruscans, Romans, Celtic and Italic tribes, there were also Greek colonists all over the place. They had settled mostly in the South, in sections of modern-day Campania, Sicily and Calabria, but also in nearby Southern France (Marseilles was originally a Greek city-state). There were also quite a few Phoenician colonists about as well.
The Phoenicians were a hodgepodge of various Canaanite tribes who traded extensively with and colonized a variety of Mediterranean areas through sea trade, from Sicily and North Africa to Spain, Corsica, Sardinia, and some even say the British Isles. They of course settled most heavily in the Levant in areas now deemed parts of Syria, Turkey and Lebanon — all areas that vacillated between Egyptian and Hittite control/influence during most of the Bronze age. Being sea-faring peoples, they imported both gods and artistic styles from wherever they could, and exported a whole bunch of colonists to those regions. For example, one will see a great deal of Egyptian and Assyrian influence in many Phoenician cult and religious objects.
There’s also another problem, and it’s a BIG one:
WORDS LIKE “ROMAN,” “GREEK,” AND “PHOENICIAN” ONLY ACCOUNT FOR LANGUAGE AND ART, NOT GENETICS.
You might as well call me “British” or “Germanic” because I speak English, even though my family members emigrated from Italy. It’s like calling someone from the Ivory Coast “French” on account of their ability to quote Baudelaire. In essence, they are terms that do not mean what most think they mean. History’s knowledge of these peoples and their rather varied cultures mostly comes from piecing together texts, inscriptions, and burial practices, not through analyzing genetic material. And when it comes down to things like religious texts and funerals, there’s always been a whole lot of cultural overlap.
MODERN PEOPLE ARE EVEN BIGGER MUTTS
I am an American who, according to American standards, is 100% Italian by blood. That is, all of my grandparents emigrated from Italy to the United States in the early 1900s. Of that, one quarter of my family further claims a link to ancient Roman nobility, through the bloodline of Marcus Aurelius. My grandfather was named “Aurelio” because of it, and “Aurelio” is now my middle name through him.
One might think the above a damned good reason for me to concentrate solely on the Roman style of Paganism as opposed to any other. However, as much as I’d like to think I can claim an unbroken link to arguably one of the coolest Emperors, the most cursory study of history has shown me just how tenuous this claim is.
In my family’s corner is the fact that the legend is at least a few centuries old, and said family held some rather large manor lands in the Sabine hills outside of Rome before my Grandfather sold them all.
However, that side’s surname, Petrocchi, is a Christianized reference to Peter “The Rock” of the Catholic Church, so we’re already getting into murky territory, since the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were rife with various Germanic tribes (like the Franks and Lombards) being awarded estates by “Holy Roman Emperors” (themselves Celto-Germanic hybrid leaders of warbands, possibly with bits of Hun, Vandal, and Alan in their bloodline as well) fighting beneath the Church’s banner.
An additional conundrum was raised when I learned many freed slaves of the Roman Empire adopted the surname “Aurelius.” I have neither the time nor resources to pursue that line of reasoning at the moment, especially since a Roman slave could have come from almost anywhere in Europe, Asia, or Africa, so I’ll just say “crapshoot.”
But even if, against all possibilities, my family indeed has a genuine claim to Roman nobility through the bloodline of Marcus Aurelius, his family came from modern-day Spain, which means they were most likely Iberian or Lusitanian Celts before the Romans stopped by and assimilated them.
Now then, as a “100% Pureblood Italian” with a familial connection to “Roman Nobility” currently living in the 21st Century, it appears there is a very real chance that I have some combination of the following “bloodlines” (once again we can only talk linguistic and artistic preference here) coursing through my veins. Remember again that this is drawing a historical picture from merely one of my four grandparents:
Hittite. Anatolian. Canaanite. Assyrian. Phoenician. Greek. Macedonian. Carthaginian. Berber. Roman. Sabine. Samnite. Umbrian. Etruscan. Iberian. Lusitanian. Gaul. Alan. Hun. Visigoth. Frank. Lombard.
This is a mere smattering of the cultures historically connected to the Romans and the Italian peninsula by the time of the early Dark Ages (nevermind thousands of years of prehistory, nor the 1400 or so years between then and now) — ultimately a mere fraction of 25% of my theoretically “pure” bloodline. It of course does not factor in any folks introduced to those areas in undocumented manners, such as through sea trade, immigration, piracy or slavery.
This perpetual hodgepodge is why most ancient Pagans saw their Gods as ostensibly the same forces viewed through different lenses. By doing so, they were showing a unity of spirit when cultures thousands of miles apart or at war with one another seemed so very alien, at least on papyrus.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with finding a paradigm one strongly resonates with and concentrating upon it. A level of hyper-focus can be very important while trying to learn as much as one can about the legends and traditions of a specific culture — the concept of Solve et Coagula is still highly meritorious, so to speak.
However, to assume one culture is so separate, alien, and “special” when compared to its neighbors (“our ways are the best ways”) is a case of manufactured ignorance, or at the very least reverence gone too far. Solve without Coagula. To further segregate it from the myriad cultures connected to it via geography, trade, philosophy and mating habits (we humans are always “in season,” after all) engenders both xenophobia and racism.
Simply, there is not a single “culture” on this planet that was not somehow inspired by, intermingled with, or impregnated by its neighbors — no matter how far back we stretch the timeline. In the same way that everyone’s ancestors were Pagan at one point in time or another (to paraphrase Adler), everyone’s ancestors were also total mutts interacting with other mutts, regardless of what their respective rulers, priests, or cronies might have us believe.
We are one race: Human. Our Gods are the same Gods, praised differently by different priesthoods. Solidifying a particular paradigm as if it had arisen ex nihilo does not strengthen or purify its teachings, but adds unnecessary myth and obfuscation to already esoteric concepts. The end result of this process tends to be calcified dogma — the ultimate seed of zealotry and bigoted thinking.
We’re all better than that, I hope.